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Vocational schools set to aid poverty alleviation
By:Chinadaily

NPC deputies call for quality education and increased funding. Li Lei reports from Beijing, with Shi Ruipeng in Nanning.

For Tan Jianghui, a vocational training session in 2015 was a life-changing experience.

The 52-year-old farmer from Huanjiang Maonan autonomous county, an impoverished corner of the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, was born with a spinal deformity that means he stands just 1.2 meters tall.

Because his family was impoverished, Tan, the middle child of seven, only made it halfway through primary school.

He helped out at home for many years, but at age 37, he left Huanjiang for the first time to work in factories in nearby cities. In 2010, though, he returned home to care for his mother who was seriously ill.

At the time, working away from home was the only way many of the county's residents could improve their livelihoods. Now, things have changed.

In 2014, the central government started profiling impoverished people as part of a poverty relief campaign that provides aid tailored to each family's needs.

Tan's family was designated as impoverished. Through the relief program, he signed up for vocational training in bricklaying and breeding cattle.

In 2017, the local government arranged for him to get an interest-free loan. He used the money to begin raising cattle. He started with just one cow, but now owns five, which has lifted him out of poverty.

"I am thinking adding another 10 cows," he said.

Tan was one of several people from the Maonan ethnic group who recently wrote to President Xi Jinping to share their joy at poverty elimination and promise constant efforts to improve their hometown.

The Maonan are one of China's smallest ethnic groups. About 70 percent, or 64,500 people, live in Huanjiang, where the poverty headcount ratio was just 1.48 percent at the end of last year.

That figure saw Huanjiang removed from the list of impoverished counties this month, while poverty has been eradicated among Maonan people nationwide.

Progress

Mountainous Guangxi is one of seven poor provincial regions to benefit from the campaign to end domestic poverty by the end of the year.

China has made great progress in eradicating rural poverty since late 2012, when the number of rural poor stood at 98.99 million.

By the end of last year, the figure had fallen to 5.51 million, according to the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development.

Meanwhile, the number of counties on the "impoverished counties" index, which tracks progress in regional poverty reduction, had fallen from 832 in 2015 to 52 by the end of last year.

The counties that are still officially labeled as impoverished are scattered across Guangxi, the provinces of Guizhou, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu, and the Xinjiang Uygur and Ningxia Hui autonomous regions.

Guangxi, home to several ethnic groups who maintain primitive production methods and lifestyles, has eight such counties.

In a circular released in February, the poverty alleviation office pledged to increase monitoring of progress in the counties and 1,113 villages under its jurisdiction.

It also suggested that funding and other resources should be redirected to help places lagging behind to cast off their "impoverished" label on schedule.

The monitors mainly check to see if relief efforts have met the basic requirements set out by the office to achieve the goal.

The main priorities are access to safe drinking water and three basic public services-affordable healthcare, safe housing and compulsory education-which are collectively known as "the three securities".

The monitors also assess whether people who have recently escaped poverty are earning stable incomes and if disabled or senior citizens are covered by safety net programs.

Liu Yongfu, head of the campaign, said the elimination of poverty is a fundamental requirement for the construction a "moderately prosperous society".

The Communist Party of China has pledged to realize this aim before its centenary next year, as one of its "Two Centenary Goals".

The other goal is to turn the People's Republic of China into a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious by its centenary in 2049.

Coronavirus

The coronavirus outbreak has tested relief officials, as widespread production stoppages and travel restrictions forced millions of migrant workers-usually the breadwinners in rural families-to sit at home idle and unpaid.

The disruption to logistics chains and flagging consumer demand have dampened sales of farm produce and other specialties that are central to rural incomes.

To offset the impact, policies have been rolled out to support the rural poor by slashing the unemployment rate, promoting sales of farm produce, helping poverty relief projects to restart, and supporting the most vulnerable people.

Figures provided by the poverty alleviation office show the measures are working. For example, by the end of last month, 26 million impoverished rural workers had found jobs in urban areas, nearly double the number two months ago.

Many workers who were stranded in their hometowns after Lunar New Year have made it to jobs in factories and construction sites thanks to transportation arranged by authorities that allowed them to travel to urban areas without stopping, thus avoiding possible infection en route.

Authorities have also mobilized government agencies, businesses and nonprofits in wealthy provinces to purchase goods from rural regions hit hard by the virus.

Figures from the office show that about 40,000 "poverty relief products"-whose production involves or benefits impoverished workers-have been identified, and goods worth 32 billion yuan ($4.5 billion) were sold between February and the end of last month.

Speaking in Beijing last week, Liu said the office will ensure that prices are fair and quality is good, and he pledged to crack down on those who profit in the name of poverty relief.

Priorities

Poverty alleviation has been a major topic since the campaign started in 2012. It is expected to attract more attention this year as officials have reiterated their determination to reach the zero-poverty goal on time, despite the epidemic.

As part of nationwide efforts to empower the rural poor and end the cycle of poverty, authorities have worked to slash dropout rates in rural primary and middle schools.

Huang Huachun, a deputy to the National People's Congress, is campaigning for more central government funding for high schools in the poorer western provinces, where authorities are struggling to keep up with rising education costs.

At present, the operating costs of high schools-not including funding for dormitories or tuition-are paid by local governments.

In light of central government requirements for less-developed regions, Guangxi has stepped up funding for high schools over the three years to 2022, with annual investment per student rising from 600 yuan to 1,000 yuan.

However, Huang, deputy head of a high school in Chongzuo, Guangxi, said the increase has been dwarfed by rising education costs, which hit 1,443 yuan per high school student last year, nearly twice the 2014 figure. The money is mainly spent on projectors, other equipment and training sessions for teachers.

"Many inland provinces are scrambling to keep up with the rising costs," she said.

The lack of funding may see local governments divert money intended for dormitories and other areas into school operations, but insufficient dormitory facilities have already forced some schools to allow students to live off campus, driving up costs for families, she added.

She suggested that the central government should contribute 80 percent of the operating costs and local government pay the rest, echoing primary and middle schools.

"I recommend that the central government provide more funding for high schools in inland provinces, so students can enjoy quality education," she said.

Meanwhile, Yang Jinghua, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, has proposed the development of farming-related vocational education in inland provinces to facilitate local revitalization.

Yang said some agricultural schools have very limited farming-related majors, and only about 10 percent of their graduates choose farming as a career.

She suggested that local and central governments provide incentives, ranging from tax breaks to better financing programs, to encourage schools to offer farming majors, and also improve the image of farming via publicity campaigns.

She said vocational schools should improve contacts with middle schools to offer students a wider range of opportunities, rather than simply going on to high school.

Relevant majors should also be made available at colleges, so vocational school graduates can further their studies, she added.

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